In contrast with the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalries of recent vintage, which took on a slightly different look from year to year, the 1989 rerun of the Lakers-Detroit Pistons NBA Finals looks very much like, well, a rerun. "It's still the bad guys in black hats against the good guys in white hats," said Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, whose own chapeau happens to be the color of squid's ink.
The two-time defending champion Lakers, who took an 11-0 postseason record into the Finals, are every bit the proud, mature, confident team, worthy of defending the honor of last year's title, just as last year's squad so gallantly defended the banner won in 1987. Personnel may change, but class endures.
By finishing with the NBA's best record (63-19) this season, Detroit lost the battling underdog status that it took into the 1988 Finals. But the Pistons struggled at times in their Eastern Conference championship series against Chicago, and their style—in contrast with the polished professionalism of the Lakers—seems to embrace the concept of winning ugly, of making it tough on themselves and prolonging the agony of the vanquished opposition. True, they stayed out of major fights in postseason play, and they even swore off alcohol as proof of their commitment to winning the title. (Laimbeer has been the lone offender so far, paying a $100 fine recently, after he joined in a family toast celebrating his father-in-law's successful open-heart surgery.) But they were still the Bad Boys, the jive-talkers, the finger-pointers, the fist-raisers, the elbow-throwers, the fine-payers and, most of all, the defense players.
Chicago, which once held a 2-1 lead over the Pistons in the conference finals, could not solve the Piston defense and exited the playoffs last week after three straight losses. The Pistons bottled up Michael Jordan with double-teaming in Games 4 and 5, holding him—astoundingly—to eight shots (and 18 points) in a 94-85 Game 5 victory in Detroit. Detroit finally finished off the Bulls 103-94 on Friday night in Chicago by wearing down Jordan (he had 32 points but made only five of 12 from the foul line) and throwing a net over everyone else. The Bulls were still in the game in the fourth period, trailing 81-79 with about eight minutes left, when Detroit guard Joe Dumars cleanly stripped Jordan as he drove to the basket. The steal led to a fast break and a John Salley free throw, and the Bulls never got back in the game. Defense did it again.
So, Michael Jordan, whom do you like?
"I'd say L.A.," Jordan said after the game. "No, wait a minute, Detroit. Yeah, Detroit. I want Detroit to bring the title back to the Eastern Conference." Then he shook his head. "Maybe then they'll be nice guys next season."
The Lakers, obviously, drove into the Finals over different motivational terrain than the Pistons, who have not won a championship in the 31-year history of the Detroit franchise. Since L.A. coach Pat Riley could not flog his Lakers with the same whip he used after guaranteeing that they would repeat as champs last season, L.A., the theory went, would have difficulty maintaining a championship mind-set for the third straight year. The theorists were wrong.
"This team kind of senses when it's got to pick things up," said Magic Johnson. Whether it's the desire to send Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out as a winner in his 20th and final season, or to end the 1980s in a blaze of glory with a sixth title of the decade, Los Angeles's play over the last few weeks against Portland, Seattle and Phoenix indicates that, motivationally, the series is dead even.
The fatigue factor? That, too, is a wash. Sure, compared with the Lakers' smooth sail through the Western Conference playoffs, the Pistons had a difficult, physical series with the Bulls. But they still came out of it unscathed, save for Isiah Thomas's minor right hamstring pull. And anyway, L.A. wasn't exactly sipping frosted drinks on the veranda during its. "layoff." Last week Riley drove the Lakers hard during practice sessions at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, having moved his players there to get them away from distractions at home. Riley went deep into his coaching lexicon for a couple of other reasons for the trip 90 miles up the coast: to "replenish" and "hone" the Lakers' game. "We can get a lot accomplished," Riley said. "We can plan. We can prepare."
"They're his same hard practices," forward James Worthy said. "They're something we've been used to. This is more like training camp." Magic described it somewhat differently: "social hibernation and hiding."